Wives and Daughters

by Elizabeth Gaskell

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When Molly Gibson’s widower father, the town doctor, marries the widow Clare Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, Molly loses her preeminent position in her father’s household and acquires a frivolous, silly stepmother as well as a stepsister with whom she has little in common. The marriage is undertaken for practical reasons on both sides; the father thinks that his motherless young daughter needs the protection and tutelage of a mature woman, and the widow is grateful for a rise in social status and material comfort in place of the struggle to make a living as a governess. The marriage is not a happy one because of differences in temperament and intellect.

Molly and Cynthia, the two young girls, do become fast friends, however, although they are very different in character and personality. Each girl admires the other for qualities she herself lacks. Cynthia captivates Roger Hamley, the younger son of Squire Hamley, and they become unofficially engaged just before Roger leaves England to do two years of scientific research in Africa. Molly never speaks of her own love for Roger.

While Roger is gone, Cynthia writes to him to break off the relationship because she realizes that she does not love the young scientist; moreover, she receives a more advantageous proposal from Walter Henderson, a young lawyer whom she met while visiting relatives in London.

Squire Hamley counts on his son Osborne, Roger’s older brother and the heir to the Hamley estate, to save the family’s declining fortunes by marrying into a wealthy family. Osborne is, however, secretly married to a penniless Frenchwoman whom he met in France. When he develops a heart ailment, Osborne returns home ill and depressed. He dies before he reveals to his father that a son was born, but his wife, Aimée, comes to Hollingford when she hears of Osborne’s illness.

The squire immediately dotes upon his young heir, but he is unable to accept Aimée. Molly tries hard to reconcile the two; when Roger returns to England upon learning of his brother’s death, the squire acknowledges his daughter-in-law and agrees that she should live nearby where she can care for her son.

Roger hopes to persuade Cynthia to marry him, but when he sees her with Henderson, he himself realizes that he was merely infatuated with her and that he really loves Molly, who loved him steadfastly so long. They reach an understanding before Roger leaves to complete his contractual obligation to his research sponsors. They look forward confidently to the future, when they plan to marry, leave Hollingford, and live in London.

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